County to focus on public safety, transportation with potential 20-year penny sales tax renewal
A new firetruck is shown at Marion County Fire Rescue Station 28 in Rolling Greens in Ocala, Fla. on Wednesday, Oct. 14, 2020. The engine was purchased entirely with funding raised through the Penny Sales Tax. [Bruce Ackerman/Ocala Gazette] 2020.
Marion County officials have begun to itemize and evaluate the costs of their highest priority projects that could be funded by the county’s penny sales tax.
The extra cent sales tax, first enacted in 2016 after being approved by voters, raised the rate from the 6% levied by the state to 7%. It is up for renewal in 2024, and many within the county think it should be renewed for a 20-year span. This would allow the county to plan far in advance for improvements such as revamping public safety, roads and infrastructure.
Based on polling of voters conducted by the Ocala Metro Chamber and Economic Partnership, renewing the sales tax is supported by the public and can help share the burden of funding countywide improvements over residents and visitors alike, said CEP President and CEO Kevin Sheilley.
“I think first and foremost, overwhelmingly, our community supports this,” Sheilley said. “They understand … that these dollars go to fund these important things that we all want.”
Out of the priority projects listed for funding from the sales tax, roads and transportation infrastructure make up about 70% of funded priorities. Public safety, including sheriff, fire and EMS-related projects, make up the other 30%, County Administrator Mounir Bouyounes said Tuesday during a Marion County Commission workshop.
After assessing the major needs for projects and improvements across all areas, the county identified a total of nearly $1.3 billion worth of need. With the sales tax collection of projected to be $65 million per year, revenues received over 20 years would be enough to fund all of the projects, Bouyounes said.
Public safety makes up a large portion of the projects that the county intends to prioritize with penny sales tax revenue.
The Marion County Sheriff’s Office will require $48 million for its regular operations and to complete capital projects but also to purchase new equipment and vehicles as needed.
The sheriff’s patrol operations will require $72.6 million to purchase a new helicopter, build a new district office, purchase training equipment, purchase law enforcement equipment and replace vehicles.
The sheriff’s emergency management operations needs $590,616 for new emergency management equipment and to replace vehicles, while the sheriff’s bailiff fund needs $154,275 to replace vehicles.
The MCSO jail also needs $9.7 million to renovate its medical area and reroof a farm’s barn, in addition to replacing vehicles, technology, farm and food services.
“With our population growth, so does the bad guys. But it means the jail population is going to grow as well, too,” said Sheriff Billy Woods.
The penny surtax would fund a lot of the necessities for the department and for the jail, but the jail needs much more work than has been outlined in the expenditure schedule, Woods said.
“The jail is getting old. You know we’ve got mechanisms in there now that you can’t find the parts for to replace anymore,” he said.
Woods said he supported the 20-year renewal of the sales tax because maintaining and expanding roads throughout the county helps the sheriff’s office serve its citizens.
EMS and the fire department’s needs
Marion County Fire Rescue needs a total of $134.4 million to fund remodeling for 14 fire stations, rebuild seven stations, build four new stations, create a training facility and replace and refurbish a number of engines, trucks, vehicles and towers.
EMS needs $60 million for a new station and to purchase new rescue vehicles. Emergency communications needs $72.3 million for improvements including replacing and upgrading radio equipment, towers, workstations and vehicles.
What is Marion County Fire Rescue’s priority? The safety of first responders, said Chief James Banta.
“Every project in here contributes to first responder public safety,” Banta said. “That is my No. 1 job, so there’s not a project in there that doesn’t make the first responder safer and the ability for them to go home the next day.”
First responder safety increases the response time and ability of fire and rescue crews to assist the public, Banta said.
Response time is improved by “adding capacity,” he said. “It’s building in backfill into areas that need faster responses, additional stations, better equipment, making sure that we have equipment in service,” Banta elaborated.
Roads and transportation needs
Before the sales tax was passed to benefit infrastructure, roadway projects were more difficult to fund through other revenues, said County Engineer Tracy Straub.
“Prior to the sales tax, road funding was solely coming from gas tax unless the board had some general fund money to make available to a road project,” she said.
The problem with gas tax nowadays is that it is a diminishing source of revenue due to the increased number of electric vehicles on the road, Straub said.
Marion County has over 2,500 total miles of road network, a large portion of which is in great need of help, she said.
“We maintain over 1,200 miles of major road network…that need to be resurfaced, milled and reconstructed,” Straub said.
Of those 1,200 miles, 25% are either poor or failing condition, requiring rehabilitation. Of the $854.4 million projected to be needed for total transportation funding from the penny sales tax, about $180 million will be devoted solely to rehabilitating roads that are in poor or failing condition.
Capacity projects, such as expanding or extending existing roadways to accommodate the large influx of residents and visitors that the county expects to see, will need $667.5 million over the next 20 years from the penny sales tax.
The county is working in partnership with the Florida Department of Transportation on a number of projects, including an Interstate 75 interchange at 49th Street and an I-75 expansion project to add an additional lane in each direction to the highway.
Transportation also requires funding for a new traffic management center, which would cost $6.5 million.
During Tuesday’s workshop, the county commission also heard from representatives of a number of Marion County municipalities, including Ocala, Belleview and Reddick.
Pete Lee, Ocala city manager, said in the short-term, the city is likely going to need three new fire stations and a police substation downtown.
Lee said Ocala has already seen many improvements made possible since the implementation of the sales tax, including some road projects to redo several roads downtown.
With growth happening fast, Lee expects the city to see growth particularly in the daytime population of visitors within the city, and that the Ocala Police Department and Ocala Fire Rescue need the resources to keep up.
“We purchased a lot of fleet vehicles for both police and fire with this model. It’s very important to us,” Lee said. “We think it’s as fair a way as there is to collect tax, and we support the 20 years.”